Last Updated on November 18, 2022
Last Updated on November 18, 2022
One of our favorite things to do is to get out and explore our 41 incredible North Carolina State Parks Sites. They include 34 established state parks, but also 4 recreation areas and 3 natural areas.
Regardless of official names and designations, we think each of these spaces offers something unique and interesting. For starters, we’ve found some of North Carolina’s best hiking trails in our parks, as well as great places to get on the water and observatories that you can reach by car.
Of course, there are some standouts (such as Chimney Rock and Mount Mitchell), but we hope to spotlight our lesser-known parks equally. No matter what, this guide will show that there’s always one near your corner of this wonderful state.
Because there are a few dozen to cover, we’ve organized this guide so you could easily find a park nearby. So here’s what you’ll find below:
- 11 Western North Carolina State Parks Sites
- 13 Central North Carolina State Parks Sites
- 17 Eastern North Carolina State Parks Sites
You can skip ahead to the section you’re looking for or keep reading about the amazing state parks in Western NC. So lace up your boots and get ready to explore these wonderful North Carolina State Parks sites with us!
Before You Go (Leave No Trace Reminder)
Before we spill all of our magical secrets on the best North Carolina State Parks, we’ve got to make sure you hear this. Leave no trace. Our state is stunning in its natural beauty, so pack out everything you bring with you.
Food waste, plastic bottles, trash, shoes- everything. In fact, bring a baggie to pick up after someone who was less considerate than you.
Let’s keep North Carolina beautiful and clean!
Western North Carolina State Parks Sites
The mountains are where you’ll find the fewest North Carolina State Parks sites, with 11. However, it’s where the biggest names await, as you’ll see in this section.
Note that we’ve alphabetically organized sites in each section. We will also include the location by county (or counties) before sharing our favorite things to do at each one.
- Mount Jefferson State Natural Area
- Mount Mitchell State Park
- New River State Park
- South Mountains State Park
- Stone Mountain State Park
Chimney Rock State Park
To reach the top of Chimney Rock involves a windy drive and either 500 steps or an elevator ride!
At 404 feet, Hickory Nut Falls is one of North Carolina’s tallest waterfalls and can be reached after an easy 0.7-mile hike. Note that Chimney Rock is one of two North Carolina state parks that has an admission fee.
Crowders Mountain State Park
The trails here are more strenuous but absolutely worthy of your North Carolina State Parks hiking list. For example, the Pinnacle Trail is 4 miles round trip and tops 1,705 feet.
On a clear day, you can see the Charlotte skyline from the top, aka the Pinnacle!
Elk Knob State Park
Elk Knob State Park is one of the newer North Carolina State Parks in the system, opening in 2002. While much of this state park near Boone is still developing, it’s one of our favorite things to do in the area.
The Summit Trail (1.8 miles) is one of our favorites and leads to beautiful views throughout the year. As long as the conditions aren’t too icy, Elk Knob is one of the few hikes near Boone accessible in the winter.
If there is snow on the ground, Elk Knob is the only state park where you can go cross-country skiing.
Gorges State Park
Gorges State Park sits next to Pisgah National Forest and is part of a temperate rainforest, receiving more than 80 inches of rain per year. Elevation changes so quickly inside the park that it cools the air that moves, raising the humidity and creating clouds and rain.
North Carolina’s westernmost state park is most notably the access point to the beautiful Rainbow Falls and Turtleback Falls.
While this waterfall sits inside PNF, hikers will start their hike from Gorges State Park.
Grandfather Mountain State Park
Avery, Caldwell, and Watauga Counties
Grandfather Mountain State Park protects the High Country‘s best-known peak. There’s a privately owned section of Grandfather Mountain (admission required), with enclosures housing animals in their natural habitats and its famous mile-high swinging bridge.
You can reach the North Carolina State Parks side of Grandfather Mountain from the bridge, where some difficult hiking trails and rewarding views await.
The advanced Grandfather Trail (2.4 miles) is reachable via the Underwood Trail (0.5 miles). The Grandfather Trail will take you to Calloway Peak, the highest of Grandfather Mountain’s four summits.
The Grandfather Trail also connects with the Profile Trail (3.6 miles), another tough hike in this state park. The Profile Trail will take you to both the Profile View and Foscoe View.
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Lake James State Park
Burke and McDowell Counties
There are also several really awesome opportunities for hiking, biking, and fishing here!
The accessible fishing pier is a great spot in the Catawba River Area of the park.
Trails are scattered around the park’s two main accesses. We love either one, especially the 1-mile Lake Channel Overlook in the Catawba River Area.
Holly Discovery Trail (0.75 miles) is a great one for kids in the Paddy’s Creek Area. This trail is also close to the Overmountain Victory Trail, which runs for 2 of its 330 miles through Lake James State Park.
You can also ride your bike on loop trails ranging from 1.4 miles to 6 miles.
For an even more challenging ride, the Fonta Flora State Trail snakes 19 miles and loops around Lake James. When completed, this trail will eventually connect Morganton and Asheville. The Fonta Flora is multi-use and very popular for cyclists.
Read More: The Best Breweries in Asheville
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area
You can drive to Mount Jefferson’s summit and enjoy beautiful views of its surroundings. But, first, of course, you should hop on one of the park’s five fairly short yet difficult hiking trails.
You can stare out toward Virginia and Tennessee from the Jefferson Overlook. The kid-friendly TRACK trail (1.1 miles) runs from the summit to Luther Rock. From Luther Rock, you can see the New River to the east on clear days.
Read More: Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes
Mount Mitchell State Park
Mount Mitchell State Park manages lands that include the tallest peak east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet. While you can hike to the peak and have the rush of accomplishment, we totally recommend driving.
The 1/4-mile paved accessible trail leads to an observation deck with panoramic views.
There are plenty of wonderful hiking trails within Mount Mitchell State Park, including the Deep Gap Trail that runs 4.3 miles through Mount Craig, the second tallest peak.
The higher altitude means flora and fauna mimic that of colder climates. However, it also means that the weather can be unpredictable and change fast.
If you are hiking and hear thunder at any time, start heading back to your vehicle or start searching for somewhere safe.
New River State Park
New River State Park in Ashe County (near Mount Jefferson) features excellent water sports and wildlife viewing opportunities. There are four access points to this North Carolina state park, but Wayoner Road and US-221 seem to be the most active.
The natural canoe trail at New River State Park is perfect for beginners as the water is shallow and slow. If you do not have your own canoe, Zaloo’s is a local company that covers rentals and shuttles.
South Mountains State Park
South Mountains State Park is also the largest North Carolina state park with 20,871 acres of preserved land. It displays the same rocky features as the nearby Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, but state officials have made it more accessible.
The park’s most popular feature is the 80-foot High Shoals Falls that sits along a 2.7-mile loop. There are more than 40 miles of trails to explore here if you’re looking for additional challenges after High Shoals Falls.
Backcountry backpacking camping is also available at South Mountains State Park and a strenuous 17-mile mountain biking loop.
Fishing is also prevalent here. You’ll see anglers dotting the streams and creeks casting reels for wild trout.
Read More: Things to Do in Hickory
Stone Mountain State Park
Alleghany and Wilkes Counties
Stone Mountain State Park (near Elkin and Wilkesboro) is one of our favorite North Carolina state parks for various reasons. 18 miles of trails, the massive granite dome, and gorgeous waterfalls make up this slice of outdoor beauty.
Central North Carolina State Parks Sites
- Mayo River State Park
- Morrow Mountain State Park
- Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area
- Pilot Mountain State Park
- Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve
- William B. Umstead State Park
Eno River State Park
Durham and Orange Counties
We don’t want to reveal our favorite, but Eno River State Park is near our house in Durham and is an easy free escape throughout the year. The park features 30-plus miles of trails that meander along the beautiful Eno River.
Eno River State Park is an absolute treat.
Among the 24 miles of hiking trails, our favorites include Cox Mountain (3.75-mile loop), Fanny’s Ford (1-mile loop), Pump Station (1.5-mile loop), and Buckquarter Creek (1.5-mile loop).
Read More: Restaurants in Durham
Falls Lake State Recreation Area
Durham, Granville, and Wake Counties
Falls Lake offers quite a few fun things to do, from simply admiring its beautiful water to fishing, boating, swimming, and even hiking and biking.
The trails at Falls Lake range from short and easy to lengthy and challenging. Beginners will enjoy the Rolling View Kids TRACK Trail (0.75 miles). However, if you’re up for a challenge, the Falls Lake Trail is a 50-mile trail that runs along the shore.
Mountain biking trails at Falls Lake vary in difficulty. Inner, Outer, and West are the intermediate loops, and more serious riders can test their abilities on the advanced South Loop.
Read More: Hiking Near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill
Hanging Rock State Park
Protecting the Dan River and the end of the Sauratown Mountain range, Hanging Rock State Park is our favorite day trip from Durham and Raleigh. It’s closest to Winston-Salem but is also an excellent day trip from Greensboro.
Hiking the Hanging Rock Trail (2.6 miles roundtrip) is most people’s first choice, thanks to the epic views that await.
The park has other fun hikes, including Moore’s Wall Loop Trail (4.7 miles) and the Indian Creek Trail (7.2 miles round trip).
The park also has five named waterfalls. Lower Cascades is the easiest waterfall to access and is our favorite in the park.
Read More: The Best Yadkin Valley Wineries
Haw River State Park
Guilford and Rockingham Counties
Haw River State Park is still developing, but it does feature the Environmental Education Center and Conference Center.
The conference center has several dormitories, conference rooms, and recreational facilities for groups 10 to 180.
Primarily used for state employees, outside organizations can use these facilities and make for a great location for family reunions or staff retreats.
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area
Chatham and Durham Counties
Jordan Lake is a popular spot for fishing, boating, and marveling at the beautiful water. The Seaforth and Ebenezer Church areas have two of the most popular beaches out of them all.
Believe it or not, there’s some great hiking at Jordan Lake. The New Hope Trail is a 5.4-mile loop and is one of the park’s most fun and challenging paths. You’ll find incredible views of the lake along this mostly forested path.
Jordan Lake is where you’ll also find the largest concentration of our national bird (the bald eagle) in the Eastern US.
Kerr Lake State Recreation Area
Vance and Warren Counties
Kerr Lake is a very nice spot for campers and birders, with seven access areas around different parts of the 50,000-acre reservoir’s shoreline.
There are multiple ways to enjoy this park, with hundreds of campsites (including group camps and RV hookups), swimming beaches, and boating ramps.
The lake is one of the best in fishing, and the Nutbush Access hosts tournaments.
Lake Norman State Park
Because of favorable weather, it’s not uncommon to see people water skiing on the lake or camping year-round. There is also a wonderful beach that is open to the public and easy to access near the visitor center.
Hiking the 6.2-mile Lake Shore Trail is a must, but many who come to Lake Norman State Park mountain bike the 30-mile Itusi Trail. Designed and maintained by the Charlotte-based Tar Heel Trailblazers, this is a must for any biker.
Mayo River State Park
Mayo River State Park is one of our developing parks, but there’s still plenty of fun for everyone here. Its accesses are pretty spread out, with Mayo Beach’s Fall Creek Waterfall one of the park’s highlights on the Virginia-North Carolina border.
At the Mayo Mountain Access, there are a couple of designated trails, including the Mayo Mountain Loop (1.8 miles) and the half-mile Mayo River TRACK Trail.
A few accesses allow paddling here, including Mayo Beach, Mayodan, and Business 220.
Morrow Mountain State Park
15 miles of hiking trails, 16 miles of bridle trails, and a large family campground makes Morrow Mountain State Park the perfect destination for families!
The peak is the highest in the Uwharrie Mountains and is believed to be more than 585 million years old. You can hike it or drive to the top for a great view.
At the base of the park is the Yadkin-Pee Dee River that’s popular for fishing. The onsite swimming pool for campers also gets busy in the summer!
Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area
To reach it, you’ll first need to park at the trailhead outside downtown Hillsborough.
You can hike around the peak via the 2.2-mile Mountain Loop or take the short route to the Overlook Trail that leads to a view of the Eno River below. From the parking lot to the top, there’s a 350-foot change in elevation.
Pilot Mountain State Park
Surry and Yadkin Counties
Pilot Mountain State Park is largely known for the iconic 1,400-foot pinnacle that greets drivers from many miles away on US-52 or I-77. The park itself is shared by Surry and Yadkin counties and has hiking trails, an accessible view of Big Pinnacle, and camping sites.
Take a short walk on the Little Pinnacle Overlook Trail (0.1 miles) for a quick and perfect look at Big Pinnacle. The Mountain Trail (4.3 miles) awaits from the Park Office, and you can connect to the Grindstone Trail (3 miles) for a roughly 6-mile loop.
The cliffs of Pilot Mountain are also very popular for rock climbing and rappelling.
At the base of Pilot Mountain State Park is the Horne Creek Living Historical Farm which represents farm life at the turn of the 20th century.
Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve
Its trails interweave with one another around the Weymouth Tract, one of three preserved by the park. This is where the Weymouth Woods Visitor Center awaits, and it’s one of the most impressive in the state.
Since the trails are fairly short and well-connected, we love creating our own loops. One example is the 1.5-mile loop that combines the Pine Barrens with the Gum Swamp Trail.
As we mentioned, there are two additional tracts at Weymouth Woods. The Paint Hill Tract offers 1.3 miles of trails, and the Round Timber Trail at the Boyd Tract is where you’ll find the oldest known living longleaf pine tree.
Read More: Things to Do in Pinehurst
William B. Umstead State Park
Umstead State Park is tucked away on the outskirts of Raleigh and Cary and offers a great escape in the Triangle. The 6,000-acre park borders I-40 and US Highway 70, but you’d never know it aside from occasional airplanes landing and taking off from RDU.
There are two access points, Crabtree Creek and Reedy Creek, but probably the biggest secret is the chainsaw art in Umstead! A 25-foot fallen oak was transformed into woodland creatures and forest scenes by an artist from Tennessee.
For directions to the chainsaw art, read here.
Read More: Hikes near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill
Eastern North Carolina State Parks Sites
With so many interesting natural features along our coast, it’s no surprise that the highest number of North Carolina State Parks sites (17) are here.
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park
- Jones Lake State Park
- Lake Waccamaw State Park
- Lumber River State Park
- Medoc Mountain State Park
- Merchants Millpond State Park
- Pettigrew State Park
- Raven Rock State Park
- Singletary Lake State Park
Carolina Beach State Park
New Hanover County
The first of our amazing Eastern North Carolina state parks sits along the banks of the Cape Fear River. Carolina Beach State Park is best known for the wild carnivorous plants native to the Wilmington area.
Search for Venus Flytraps while shrouded in tall coastal pines. Fishing is popular at the marina, which is a great spot to launch a boat, too!
We enjoy hiking the 3 mile Sugarloaf Trail, which connects to some interesting offshoot trails and passes the Sugarloaf Dune.
Carvers Creek State Park
Cumberland and Harnett Counties
Carvers Creek State Park is one of our favorite outdoor attractions in Fayetteville! The 4,530-acre park is Sandhills terrain centered around Long Valley Pond, a winter home retreat for the Rockefeller family.
Expect the trails to be sandy with lots of beautiful pines towering above.
There are two access points to Carvers Creek—Long Valley Pond in Spring Lake and Sandhills in Fayetteville. The Sandhills Access is very popular for horseback riding, and hikers will find longer trails here.
Read More: Things to Do in Fayetteville
Cliffs of the Neuse State Park
Cliffs of the Neuse State Park is near Goldsboro in Wayne County and is a relatively small park, but worth visiting! Its 1,097 acres are still notable, largely thanks to the embankments (cliffs) that overlook the Neuse River.
There are five hiking trails here, along with beautiful quiet fishing spots and an 11-acre swimming lake. Rent a boat, pitch a tent, or reserve a cabin at this wonderful NC State Park.
Dismal Swamp State Park
Note that as of June 14, 2021, Dismal Swamp State Park is temporarily closed for construction.
Dismal Swamp State Park gives North Carolinians access to the million-acre Great Dismal Swamp. The North Carolina State Parks side of Dismal Swamp features 20 miles of trails, a 2,000-foot boardwalk, and tons of opportunities to scope out birds and various wildlife.
You can also ride your bike on the trails and kayak the Dismal Swamp Canal nearby.
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
New Hanover County
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is an interesting park that borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. It sits near the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher and the Fort Fisher State Historic Site but is not a place you should overlook.
The visitor center is home to a small exhibit area and restrooms. Beyond that, you can access the beach, the mile-long Basin Trail, or the seasonally open road that requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle and a permit.
This state parks site is perfect for surf fishing, hiking to the Basin Overlook, or just enjoying a day at the beach.
Throughout the year, you’ll see various birds and during nesting season, loggerhead sea turtles, and other endangered species.
Read More: Things to Do in Wilmington
Fort Macon State Park
Fun Fact Alert: Fort Macon State Park was the first North Carolina state park to open.
This is a wonderful day trip if you’re staying at Atlantic Beach (Atlantis Lodge possibly?), Emerald Isle on the Bogue Banks, or Morehead City and Beaufort on the mainland. North Carolina’s leaders originally built the fort to defend the last two aforementioned seaports.
Today, Fort Macon is the second most visited state park in North Carolina despite being one of our smallest.
When visiting Fort Macon State Park, make time to walk around the fully restored fort as well as the nature trails. There is also great fishing and a protected swim area.
Goose Creek State Park
Protecting parts of the Pamlico Sound near Washington, Goose Creek State Park spans 1,672 acres. Visit this park and walk the terrain that the infamous Blackbeard and the Tuscarora Indians once inhabited.
We love Goose Creek for the gorgeous views of the Pamlico River that await, but also the great hikes around its diverse ecosystems. Goose Creek (2 miles) and Mallard Creek (1 mile) are a couple of our favorites.
The Live Oak Trail will lead you to the park’s popular swimming area.
Don’t forget about the birds that come through here, especially if you’re visiting during the colder months. Tundra swans and Canada geese are a few of the many birds that pass through Goose Creek State Park.
Hammocks Beach State Park
Hammocks Beach State Park is an underrated gem in the North Carolina State Parks system.
You can reach Bear Island by boarding the park’s passenger ferry or by private ferry. We recommend Marsh Cruises for the latter!
The visitor center is where you’ll find the ferry dock. This is also an excellent launch spot for kayaks, canoes, or paddleboards.
If you didn’t bring your own boat, there are some great outfitters in Onslow, including Paddle NC.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
One of the most popular things to do in the Outer Banks is to hike the tallest dunes on the East Coast! Jockey’s Ridge State Park is where you’ll find them, a 427-acre wonderland that is the most visited NC state park.
There are 3 officially designated nature trails, and you can start from the Visitor Center parking lot or the Sound Side lot to start.
Walking among the dunes is so much fun, but simply standing on one and watching the sunset over the sound is the best part.
You can bring a kite, sign up to paraglide off the dunes, and search for the hidden sandcastle! To see the latter hidden gem, park at Kitty Hawk Kites on Croatan Highway and use the pedestrian crosswalk.
You’ll see the former mini-golf castle to your left.
Jones Lake State Park
Bays stretch along the entire east coast and are believed to have formed when permafrost thawed. From above, they almost look like thumbprints dotting the landscape.
The Bay Lake Trail traverses Jones Lake and is a lengthy five miles. However, you can hike four miles of the Bay Lake Trail, connect to the Salters Lake Trail (1 mile), and make it two lakes in one six-mile flat hike.
There’s also a swimming beach at Jones Lake with 50 picnic tables, grills, and a pavilion.
Lake Waccamaw State Park
Of all the North Carolina state parks, Lake Waccamaw is our favorite to pronounce. It’s also great because it protects the largest natural Carolina Bay.
Inside the park, there are beautiful overlooks, walking trails easy enough for our toddler, and rare plants—including the native Venus flytrap.
There are seven officially recognized trails and but we recommend checking out Broadwalk Trail 1 (0.10 miles) for some of the best Lake Waccamaw views.
Lumber River State Park
Lumber River State Park protects 115 miles of the Lumber River, the only blackwater river designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.
Established as a National Canoe Trail in 1981, most of the recreational facilities for the state park are at Princess Ann and Chalk Banks access areas.
There are 24 boat launches along the river, and fishing is incredibly popular here, too. You can catch black crappie, largemouth bass, catfish, and redbreast sunfish in these waters.
Medoc Mountain State Park
Medoc Mountain State Park in Halifax County sits on the fall line that separates Central and Eastern North Carolina!
This park is a rare formation of mountains from the Paleozoic Age, 350 million years ago. With a large open field, Medoc Mountain is a great place for a picnic and fishing.
There are six bridle trails and 10 miles of hiking, with our favorites the 1.25-mile Discovery Loop and the 0.28-mile Habitat Adventure (TRACK).
We also hear that Medoc Mountain is supposedly the home of Bigfoot!
Merchants Millpond State Park
Merchants Millpond State Park is a southern swamp dotted with bald cypress trees, Spanish moss, and still waters. Most North Carolina state parks are fairly unique, but this one is truly unlike any other.
Great for paddling, visitors to the park can rent canoes from the visitors center.
There are also several canoe campsites and 11 miles of trails at Merchants Millpond State Park. The Coleman Trail (2-mile loop) is great for kids, and the Lassiter Trail (6 miles) allows bicycles for some portions.
Pettigrew State Park
Tyrrell and Washington Counties
Enter a magical land of cypress trees and blackwater rivers.
This park protects the shores of Lake Phelps. That 16,000-acre lake is said to have the last old-growth forests in Eastern North Carolina.
Somerset Place, a former plantation, is also here and free to enter.
Trails here run around the lake, leading to overlooks and through sweetgum forest. You can also drive and park near the Pocosin Overlook, which offers some pretty sweet views!
Raven Rock State Park
Named for the 150-foot tall Raven Rock, this NC state park gets very busy on the weekends.
The namesake Raven Rock Loop Trail is the most popular, looping 2.6 miles around the rock. Climb down the stairs to reach the river and the underside of the rock.
Raven Rock State Park also has three mountain bike trails, two bridle trails, and camping.
Singletary Lake State Park
Singletary Lake is the last of our North Carolina State Parks but certainly not least. It’s just down the road from Jones Lake and another of Bladen County’s Carolina Bays.
Large groups come here to stay and learn about the park.
The cabins are one of the first things you’ll see upon entry, but there are a few trailheads that lead to some fairly diverse terrain. The CCC Trail is a mile-long loop that’ll take you by the scenic pier, through the bay forest, and toward the sandy edges of the park.
NC 242 between Elizabethtown and the highway’s intersection with US 421 is also known as the Meteor Lakes Byway, one of our favorite scenic roads. The road will take you by Jones Lake, Singletary Lake, and also White Lake.
Ready to Explore these Amazing North Carolina State Parks Units?
We’re always ready to explore our favorite North Carolina State Parks, which change from week to week. We just want to make sure you’re ready.
If you are or if you have ever visited any of these awesome places, we’d love to know which are your favorites. Also, is there one that we covered that’s your go-to park?